Now is an incredibly challenging time for events in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. According to findings from the British Chambers of Commerce, between seven and ten million people are on track to be furloughed, making up one-third of private-sector employees throughout the UK and Ireland.

Many have watched in dismay as their businesses have crumbled. And naturally, these hits have come hardest to those in industries once reliant on face-to-face events. A recent survey by Martech found that unless a vaccine for COVID-19 became available, only 4 out of 10 marketers would consider attending a conference or live event for the remainder of the year.

Given that scientists estimate at least a 12-month wait for a vaccine, tradeshow and conference businesses have a long battle ahead.

In the meantime, business owners are now looking for new ways to market their wares and keep the lights on. The result is that many companies are now considering virtual events for the very first time.

More Online Events, More Competition

The competition for attention in the online space has become fierce. Should you decide to pivot your offline marketing event online, it’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd. But how can you do this without a picturesque location, sundowner cocktails and the catering we all expect at our usual conferences and seminars?

Worse yet, what if your speaker lineup is speaking somewhere else… for free!

How can you convince your attendees to pay for a ticket amidst the hundreds of free events and webinars on the internet?

It’s the question on everybody’s minds — even some of the greatest marketers of our time. 

Rand Fishkin knows a thing or two about events. As co-founder and former CEO of Moz, provider of premium SEO tools, and current CEO and co-founder of SparkToro, a top market research and audience intelligence provider, Rand understands the ins and outs of marketing both on and offline. He has spoken at hundreds of digital marketing events throughout his career, and recently, he put this burning question out into the Twittersphere.

Rand Fishkin tweet

The tweet attracted over 100 responses, with suggestions ranging from mailing out branded merchandise, to organising a guest appearance by Keanu Reeves (one can dream, right?).

It was an insightful but lengthy discussion. So, to save you time, I’ve gone ahead and summarised all the responses, drilling down to eleven tips to help you pitch and plan the perfect virtual event!

1) Pre-Event Engagement

Many of your prospective attendees may be sceptical about whether they can get the same value out of a virtual event as they would do in person. This means one of your first tasks when pivoting online will be to prove there’s value in buying a ticket.

But how do you do this?

For starters, find ways to give a free sample of what your attendees can expect from the sessions. Provide links to your speakers’ previous talks to give your prospective attendees a taste of the value they can expect from your event. Where possible, frame this value in terms of hard numbers and ROI, so that prospective attendees know they will log off from your event having gained tangible value for their time and money, rather than just a head full of ideas and inspiration.

Also, there’s nothing worse than a droning presentation, so let your prospective attendees know how you plan on working with speakers to ensure every session is top quality. This is what organisations like TEDx do, and it’s why we all hold such high expectations whenever we click on a TED Talk video. You can achieve a similar level of quality by communicating with your speakers early and openly about expectations for session content.

Speaking of which…

2) Avoid the Sales Pitch

This may sound obvious, but an online conference should not feel like a free online webinar, which typically serves as a pitch for a paid product or service. Your attendees are already paying to attend, so having a lineup full of sales pitches attempting to further monetise a crowd will serve only to cheese off your ticket-buyers.

Not a great look if you’re hoping to have them back next year.

That being said, it’s only reasonable to expect your speakers will want a return on investment for their time. If you want speakers to go a step beyond what they’d typically deliver at free events, you should consider paying them a speaking fee — especially if you’re charging for an online conference where costs are significantly lower than the in-person experience.

Regardless, you should set guidelines on how much time in any given presentation is dedicated to pushing a lead generator, a pitch or highlighting clients and case studies — perhaps the last 30-60 seconds of a talk. And if it’s within your budget, consider paying a coach to work with your speakers to ensure their content delivers value and is a cut above free events who are competing for the same audience.

3) Create Opportunities for Small-Group and 1:1 Discussion

One commenter noted that presenters often rejoice at the numbers who tune into their virtual sessions: “Wow! We have so many people logged on!” they proclaim.

But who are these people? Fellow marketers? Potential clients?

It’s a good question.

It’s important to foster connections between attendees and speakers by building networking into your sessions. You can achieve this by facilitating intimate small-group discussions based on specific industry groups, niches and interests.

One way to do this is by making use of the ‘breakout room’ function in video chat software like Zoom. By having your attendees break out into smaller discipline-specific groups, you will avoid the risk of material seeming generic and allow your attendees to ask their burning questions to the experts in roundtable discussions.

You may also want to build in opportunities for attendees to chat one-to-one with speakers. One commenter even suggested your ticket price could include guaranteed time to speak with members of a lineup. If you take this route, just be sure you don’t accidentally overload your speakers with too many virtual coffee chats.

4) Craft the Hallway Track

Some of the most valuable networking experiences at events are those that are unplanned, otherwise known as the hallway track. You can keep your attendees and speakers happy by crafting these opportunities in a virtual space.

Yes, this is still possible.

And no, you don’t need fancy catering to trick people into talking to each other.

In addition to standard video chatting software, YoTribe (Beta) and Remo are just two technologies that facilitate spontaneous small-group conversations in a virtual 2D space. These platforms allow your attendees to move seamlessly between discussions as though they were mingling around the snack table in real life.

By creating these opportunities for connection and networking, your attendees will get the chance to ask questions to your speakers (and chat with each other), while your speakers will get the opportunity to pitch their services one-on-one. It’s a win-win!

5) Provide Exclusive Value

If the content and materials provided at your event can be found for free through a search engine or by filling out an online form, you need to stop and rethink.

The thought of missing out on your event should give prospective ticket-buyers FOMO. Therefore, you should tease exclusive templates, digital workbooks/workshops and other unique materials and opportunities that cannot be found elsewhere online or for free.

For example, your ticket price could include the opportunity to participate in a small virtual workshop with a specific deliverable, facilitated by an expert. This might be the chance to be coached through the process of planning a sales funnel or ad campaign. By highlighting the exclusivity of these opportunities and ensuring attendee-only access to key materials, your prospective attendees won’t be able to resist buying a ticket to your event

6) Get the Price Right

Think carefully about what you will charge for a ticket to your virtual event. Chances are, you may want to provide a discount on what you’d usually charge to pass on the cost-savings associated with not needing a venue and catering.

Look to other virtual events in your industry for guidance on what to charge and seek ways to build extra value and incentive into each ticket. For example, you may want to consider donating a portion of the ticket price to a good cause or building in a discount for future in-person events.

7) Combine Real-Time and On-Demand Opportunities

People attend events and conferences to gain new knowledge and tools from leading industry experts. Therefore, an excellent in-person event will have some similarities to on-demand courses (think MasterClass).

Look for opportunities to link any streams you are offering to an online course or even a certification. That way, your attendees will log off at the end of the event with something concrete to show for their investment.

At the same time, people turn to events for networking and real-time interaction. This means not only providing opportunities for one-to-one and small-group discussion but finding ways to keep your real-time audiences captivated.

Get creative with your sessions. Keep your live audiences engaged with polls, live Q&As, and quizzes. There are many cost-effective online tools to help you do this. For ideas, check out Kahoot! and Poll Everywhere.

8) Provide Post-Session Materials

Attendees of virtual events often don’t have the luxury of scheduling time to be fully present for an entire day (or multiple days) in the same way they would when an event is face-to-face. Your attendees will often still need to juggle families, work and other responsibilities in between their attendance.

Ensure that all attendees get the same experience by providing replay links and slide decks for all video sessions. You may also want to provide transcripts for those who prefer reading over audio and video.

Providing post-session materials is an especially good idea if you are running a large event with multiple concurrent sessions as it spares your attendees from choosing between equally exciting topics. Rather than stressing about which to tune into, they can simply catch up on missed material at a later time.

9) Give Away Merch, But Better

While it may not be within your budget to mail out a branded squeeze ball to every attendee, consider the other ways you might give away something for free to commemorate the event.

Consider partnering with sponsors to distribute ebooks, access to an on-demand course or an extended free trial for a piece of software. There are plenty of digital alternatives to physical freebies, so get creative! Soon, you’ll be wondering why giving out branded pens was ever a thing in the first place.

10) Get the Basics Right

Some rules always apply, regardless of whether you’re online or offline.

In short, try to choose speakers from diverse backgrounds with reputations for delivering engaging content and ensure your content is accessible to people of different abilities. In a virtual space, this may mean including captions in videos and alt text to any images.

Avoid recycling, padding or fluffing up content. Instead, keep the material relevant and up to date without slipping into hype territory. For instance, while the current pandemic is obviously at the forefront of everyone’s minds, you probably want to avoid having a lineup full of speakers talking exclusively about its impact and instead strike a balance between topical and enduring subjects relevant to your industry.

11) Wrap Up Right

Don’t let the discussion end when everyone logs off. Instead, give your attendees an exclusive platform to keep in touch after your event is over. For example, you may want to consider setting up an attendee-only channel on Slack. Traffic Think Tank is a great example of how to take an offline event online and keep the community experience alive through Slack.

Another way to ensure your attendees don’t return next year is to release the event materials for free or as a lead generator after your virtual event is over. Instead, do right by your paying attendees and resist this temptation. Keep the essential materials exclusive and spare your attendees from buyer’s remorse.

***

Finding a way to integrate as many components of the offline experience into the virtual space is key to hosting a great virtual event. The brand you have built needs to translate to this new experience. So even if your audience is no longer in the same room, get creative.

For the best chance of hosting a standout virtual event, find ways to help your attendees build connections and offer something uniquely valuable that’ll have them itching to come back in person the next chance they get.

 

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